I knew very well that this was foolish. The human body can easily go a month without food. I have occasionally fasted for three or four days at a time for one reason or another, and while there are things I would rather do, it’s painless and harmless. You just need the right mental attitude, that’s all. And that was the one thing I didn’t have now. The human body can go a month without food, but the human mind isn’t that reasonable.
I looked at Plum and wondered if she was as hungry as I was. She was asleep, and thus didn’t know if she was hungry or not. I wished her name didn’t happen to be the name of a sort of food. I looked at her shoulder. It was the color of a toasted English muffin. I found myself wondering what human flesh tasted like.
Plum went right on sleeping. The sun came up and blazed through her window without waking her. She didn’t wake up until we ran out of gas.
This was somewhat less surprising than it may sound. It will happen to any car if you drive it long enough without filling the tank, and on a road totally lacking in filling stations it’s just a question of time. Or miles, more precisely. The VW was a recent enough model to possess a gas gauge, and for the past couple of hours I had watched the needle hover closer and closer to the big E. Eventually it touched the E with no discernible decline in performance, and I had just about decided that the blessed bug would run without gas when it coughed dryly, uttered a droll belch, and quit on me. I popped it into neutral and managed to coast to the crest of a slight rise, passed the crest, and rolled on for about a half mile. It did this rather well, but it finally stopped, as everything does, and Plum woke up and asked where we were and why we had stopped. I told her, and she said that was nice. She wasn’t asleep, but she wasn’t exactly awake, either.
“Almost two hundred miles,” I said. “That’s not bad at all, really.”
“Perhaps we can stop another car and get more petrol.”
“There aren’t any other cars. I haven’t seen another car in a hundred miles.” I cleared my throat. “I don’t understand it, actually. The road is flat and wide and perfectly paved, and it doesn’t look as though there’s ever been another car on it.”
“Perhaps we are the first.”
“It certainly looks that way.”
“You see, the road does not go anywhere, Evan.”
“The Retriever built it. Knanda Ndoro. Your country and many others gave him much money, and he built things throughout the nation for the glory of Modonoland.”
“I thought he just kept the money.”
“Some he spent on the country. There were beautification projects and modernization projects and improvement projects and, oh, many projects. You know the cultural museum in the square? This was built with aid from the Soviet Union.”
“There’s no roof on it,” I said.
“There was not enough money to complete it.”
“And this road, it was built with money from your country. It extends to the Congo border. But there is nothing there, you see. Just jungle. It was hoped that the government of the Congo would build a road to join up with it, but they replied that no one really wished to drive from the Congo to Modonoland anyway, or from Modonoland to the Congo, and so the road simply goes to the border and stops.”
“Just like that.”
“It must have cost millions.”
“I think it did.”
“And the U.S. gave you the money?”
“Yes. Knanda Ndoro announced that if he did not get the funds from you, then he would accept them from Communist China.”
“Oh, well,” I said. “We had no choice, did we?”
We left the car and set out along the road. It was concrete, but it should have been yellow brick. I felt like one of Dorothy’s chums en route to the Emerald City. The Cowardly Lion, I decided, because the others never got hungry.
A ways down the road we saw a few columns of smoke off to the left. We found a path cutting off in that direction and took it. The terrain was rather attractive, with high savanna grasses interrupted by an occasional squat palm tree. The grass was shoulder high on me and came to the top of Plum ’s head.
The path led to a clearing where a scattering of geometrically precise huts circled a common cooking fire. Women squatted on their haunches around the fire baking bread. There didn’t seem to be any men around.
“You know the language,” I said to Plum. “See what you can do.”
The hell she knew the language. It turned out that she knew English and Swahili and Modono. So did I. So didn’t the women; they spoke a pleasant-sounding singsong dialect without a single recognizable word in it. Plum looked at me and shrugged.
“You will be a help to me,” I said, “because you know the language.”
Plum examined the ground at her feet. I smiled at the women and made eating motions. They smiled back at me and repeated the motions. I rubbed my stomach, put my fingers to my mouth, and panted like a dog. They giggled. Plum kept studying the earth.
They brought us bread baked from flour made from some sort of roots. It was bland and very dry, but tasted as though it probably had a comfortingly high protein content. Another woman brought a jug of blood-colored liquid, bubbling with fermentation and with a faint aftertaste of carrion. If the bread hadn’t been quite so dry I might have passed on this, but it was impossible to get it down without liquid, so I took an optimistically hearty drink. The first gulp was a trial, but it got better as you went along.
We were still eating when the men came back. They had been hunting but didn’t seem to have caught anything. The woman who seemed to be in charge explained our presence to several of the men, and they came and grunted, and I smiled and grunted back at them, and I drew a map in the dirt to show where we had come from, and they filled in details on the map. I put a mark where I had left the car and managed to convey to them what the car was and where I had left it and that they might find something of use there. I figured they could find it as worthwhile to strip an abandoned car as the kids do in my neighborhood, but I’m not sure whether or not they got the point. They didn’t seem all that excited about it.
They gave us a couple of hunks of bread to take with us. A tiny boy, naked and giggling, presented Plum with a small lizard and raced back to his hut. We couldn’t decide what we were supposed to do with the lizard. The only things we could think of were to eat him, make a pet of him, or pray to him. None appealed, so when we were well on our way we let him go, and he disappeared immediately in the tall grasses.
Plum said, “They were very nice. I wish we had had something to give them in return. I was afraid they might, oh, kill us or something.”
“They were friendly.”
“How could you tell?”
“When they befriended us and gave us food, I knew. Just like that.”
“I mean before, silly.”
We angled back toward the road but never quite got there. We stayed with the path we were on. It was a perfect day, with a high hot sun and a breeze that rippled the grass around us. We saw small herds of animals grazing, antelopes of one sort or another. Now and then a hawk would circle overhead. It was calm and clear and absolutely silent.
Just before nightfall we saw buzzards gathering ahead of us on the right. We approached quietly. An antelope lay in a bloody circle of trampled grass, gutted and lifeless. The lion that had made the kill was somewhere sleeping it off now, and a pair of hyenas were worrying what it had left behind. The hyenas looked formidable, but I ran at them, bellowing like a bull, and they turned tail and ran. I cut some steaks from the antelope’s haunches and wiped the blade of the Swiss Army pocketknife on the beast’s hide. Plum looked at the meat in my hand and made a face.
“Steak,” I said happily. “I wish we had a knapsack or something. There’s meat enough to last for weeks if we could only take it along.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to eat that, Evan.”
“It’s dead meat.”
“A few hours dead.”
“From an animal in the jungle. A wild animal.”
I took her chin in my fingers and looked at her. “ Plum,” I said, “all meat comes from dead animals.”
“When you buy it in the store, you don’t have to think about it.”
“ Plum, this is your country, for Christ’s sake.”
“I know,” she said.
When it began turning dark we picked a spot for the night. We camped near a scraggly wali tree, and I used dead leaves and twigs to get a fire started. Once it was blazing nicely I began ripping off parts of the tree and feeding them to the fire. We shishkebabed the antelope meat and Plum overcame any objections she may have had to it. I pulled up grass and cut palm fronds and made a bed for her beside the fire. She lay down on it and looked expectantly at me. I sat next to the fire and fed it with a couple of handfuls of dry grass.
“Are you coming to sleep?”
I said I would sit up awhile.
“I want you to sleep with me, Evan.”
“I am not tired.”
“That is not what I mean.”
I looked at her. “Oh,” I said, light dawning. “Plum, don’t be silly.”
“You do not like me.”
“Of course I like you.”
“You do not think I am pretty?”
“You’re very pretty.”
“You do not care for my body.”
“Plum, you’re just a kid. You’re fifteen years old, for heaven’s sake.” I had this very strange and quite uncomfortable feeling in my throat, and the beginning of a headache. “You go to sleep now,” I said. “I’ll tend the fire.”
“I cannot sleep,” she said. And I thought she was going to say something else, but she didn’t, and when I looked at her again she was out. She lay on her back, her hands clenched into little fists at her sides, and she slept.
At one village the head man wore polished wooden hoop earrings and spoke a sort of pidgin Dutch. “I know Sheena,” he said. “A moon is born and dies, and another, and another, and another, and another.” He drew five moons in the dirt with a sharpened stick. “Sheena comes from the place of trees and vines. She kills with the sun and rides off with the moon. I am told she roasts babies and eats their flesh, and hacks off the breasts of the women, and the private parts of men. I am also told what she does with them, but I see none of this with my own eyes, and do not believe or disbelieve. For men’s words are carried upon the wind, and some wind is always blowing, is it not so?”
And at another village where the women were ornamented with ridges of clay beneath the skin and where no one spoke anything which I could understand, the name Sheena brought a volley of gasps, an embarrassed silence, and, finally, a brusque gesture, a pointing toward the northwest.
So the white goddess, the Queen of the Jungle, seemed more than a figment of the Chief’s imagination. The general consensus seemed to be that she and her gang were somewhere to the northwest, somewhere beyond the plain where the tropical rain forest began. I would have liked to ask about Sam Bowman and Knanda Ndoro, but even without a language barrier that would have been hard to manage. “Did two black men pass through here? Or one black man?” Wonderful.